As I reversed I heard a crunch and felt the back of my car go up. Reflexively, I put it in forward and felt it come back down. As I opened the door, I heard yelping. I ran around the back of the car and I found my 8 year old Collie, Tiger, paddling in the dirt, screaming and biting at his spine. He wasn’t moving his back legs. An x-ray at the emergency clinic confirmed the worst – that I had severed Tiger’s spine. My father was in a meeting at the hospital and could not be reached. I made the decision to have him put to sleep. My father didn’t forgive me for months. He didn’t speak with me for days.
I was 18 years old at the time, back from university and on the first day of spring break. I had forgotten that I had earlier let Tiger out as I dashed out to go to a movie. I was a freshman at the University of Florida. I had already made the decision several months earlier that I wanted to be a vet and probably a surgeon. The previous summer, my father had deposited Tiger and me in Gainesville to live with my older brother while he went to the Texas Heart Institute for 6 months to retrain in cardiac surgery. By that time, I had narrowed it down to human medicine or veterinary medicine. Tiger developed a tumour in one of his toes. I took him to the vet school for surgery. While I was there, I asked for a tour and for the opportunity to volunteer. On my first day there, the head of the Department of Surgery asked me if I wanted to get paid.
I became a surgery groupie. I hung out at the vet school whenever I could. I did odd jobs for the department like pulling articles from the medical school library, calling owners for followup on their pets, organising continuing education conferences and even making departmental Christmas cards. I was the goto person for anything that needed to be done. I helped one of the surgeons prepare for his surgical specialty examination. It was then that I recognised that there was such a thing as specialisation in surgery.
My older brother who was much more intelligent than me had skipped 12th grade and was accepted a year early into a prestigious engineering school in the northeast. Unfortunately, he flunked out after three semesters. He had become involved in a project to create a futuristic car. This occupied most of his time. The rest, he spent partying. As an immature young adult, it was difficult for him to establish priorities. He moved back home. My father agreed to continue to support him as long as he lived at home and made straight A’s. Clearly he was intelligent enough but still struggled to apply himself. My brother did not make the requisite straight A’s and my father made good on his threat not to continue to support him. He moved out, got a job and started at the University of Florida. He eventually got a Master’s in computer science. He worked in IT for a few years and decided to go back to medical school. He later returned to his first love, computer science, when he became disillusioned with medicine after successfully defending himself from a frivolous medical malpractice lawsuit.
The scholastic failure on my brother’s part caused my father to become a tyrant with me. On weeknights, he would call me at my apartment to check to see that I was studying. I was not allowed to study at the library because he could not monitor me there. I don’t think cellular phones had been invented yet. At the other end of the spectrum, my sister was a presidential scholar and was making straight A’s at Princeton University. My father had great examples at both ends of the spectrum. I was stuck in the middle.
Being the son of a surgeon had its benefits. When I was in high school, he was trying to invent a new heart lung machine. I have vivid memories of using it to shoot a jet of water about 10 meters in the front yard. I learned about the steps in invention design and development, something that would help me later when I patented several devices and new techniques related to the treatment of disease in animals. He used to show off to me by holding his hand perfectly still in midair for a minute without moving a millimetre. I also used to watch in awe as he tied surgical hand ties on my shoelaces. The knots would appear in rapid succession as his hands moved in a blur above. I might have been the only high school student who could proficiently do surgeons’ hand ties. People on the school bus just thought I was a weird.
On a few occasions, I watched him do surgery and even got to scrub in sometimes. The first time was when I was in vet school. I was impressed and amused that at the beginning of an aortic aneurism repair, he handed me a large clamp. He said “If I say – ‘Oh Shit’ hand me that clamp.” An aortic aneurism is when the aorta balloons out due to deterioration of the wall and can even rupture in some cases. Later, when I was a veterinary surgical specialist, he would explain to patients that I was going to be assisting him and that I was a surgeon, as well. He did leave an important fact out. This was the first time that I viewed him as a magnificent surgeon on not just a slightly dysfunctional father.
My dad is not very effusive with praise. Given my brother’s combined skills of medicine and computer science, he developed a computerised medical records program long before they were popular. His was written up as the best medical records program for urologists anywhere in the world. He had been made an offer of $20,000,000 for his company just before the dot-com bust of the late 90’s. That Christmas, he was explaining to my Dad what he had designed, hoping for approval. My Dad’s response was “I wouldn’t use it.”
Jump forward to now. My Dad has just turned 86. He retired about 15 years ago. He has definitely softened. I was showing him some surgery videos from my youtube channel. As I put away my iPad, he made an off-hand comment to me, almost under his breath. “You have good hands.”